Why the Padres partnered with a local university to create a biomechanics lab

SAN DIEGO — In the early aughts, Arnel Aguinaldo was running a gait analysis laboratory at Children’s Hospital in San Diego, helping young patients with walking problems, when he approached the hospital’s medical director with an unexpected idea: Why not expand the lab to include the study of pitching mechanics?

The Center for Human Performance soon debuted, outfitted with a portable mound and just enough space for a 60-foot, 6-inch throwing lane. Aguinaldo, who sought to research pitching biomechanics, began working with Tom House, a former major-league reliever and the founder of the National Pitching Association. One of House’s prized pupils visited the lab, stripped down to his underwear, donned motion-capture markers and threw a baseball down a hallway.

“It was hilarious,” Aguinaldo said recently. “I think back to how it used to be, and at the time, we thought, ‘Man, we’re cutting-edge. We’re doing something that no one else is doing.’”

Much has changed over the past two decades. House, still a renowned pitching guru, expanded his clientele to include NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees. That former prized pupil, Mark Prior, is now the pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And on Monday in central San Diego, Aguinaldo and the San Diego Padres unveiled a culmination of years upon years of research: a baseball-centric biomechanics lab at Point Loma Nazarene University, equipped with both markered and markerless motion-capture technology and other state-of-the-art tools.

The facility’s grand opening came five years after Aguinaldo and his PLNU graduate students began working with the Padres, relying on a “mobile lab” to provide data-based interpretations of player performance and injury risk. In early 2020, Aguinaldo approached assistant general manager Josh Stein with the idea of building a permanent home. The proposed lab’s proximity to Petco Park appealed to the Padres. So did the expertise of Aguinaldo, a PLNU biomechanics professor.

“As much as anything, it’s about having Arnel in the program and involved,” said Stein, who oversees the Padres’ sports science initiatives. “We could have built this at Petco, we could have built this in (the club’s spring training home in Arizona). We wouldn’t have been able to, I think, see the application that we’re going to get to see having it here.”

Aguinaldo, who has a Ph.D. in health and human performance from Concordia University Chicago, estimated that the lab cost between $2 million and $3 million, with a Padres spokesperson saying the team supplied a “seven-figure” investment. Besides the dueling motion-capture systems — players, if they prefer, can be assessed while fully clothed — the space features such technologies as TrackMan, Blast Motion, HitTrax, Edgertronic high-speed cameras, electromyography machines and, notably absent at Petco Park, force plates that measure forces exerted on the ground throughout a pitcher’s delivery or a hitter’s swing.

Petco Park and all other big-league stadiums are equipped with marker-less motion capture through the Hawk-Eye Statcast platform, although that system is deployed only during games. Since October, when the lab at PLNU unofficially opened, dozens of Padres pitchers and non-roster invitees have thrown from an instrumented mound a 15-minute drive from downtown San Diego. Pitching coach Ruben Niebla said that in the past two weeks alone, the count is 26 pitchers — not including Padres minor leaguers who also have visited the lab.

“Being able to assess players, being able to understand players, there’s a health component to it, but performance is directly impacted by health,” Niebla said. “At times, you try to get guys to do certain things that they might not be capable of. So, now we will have a better understanding of being able to impact guys.”

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Minor league pitcher Daniel Camarena throws at the lab as Padres pitching coach Ruben Niebla looks on. (Matt Thomas / San Diego Padres / Getty Images)

While the devices at the lab have spread across baseball in recent years, the Padres-PLNU facility has the distinction of being a rare partnership between a major-league organization and an academic institution. Aguinaldo modeled its design after a pitching-only lab opened in 2022 by the Baltimore Orioles, who also partnered with a local private institution, MedStar Health.

“Most teams that have these types of labs, at least something similar, are purely internal, and they’re not allowed to publish (their research) or at least they don’t,” said Aguinaldo, who was recently elected president of the American Baseball Biomechanics Society. “We’re an academic institution, and part of our mission is to share this research and present at conferences and publish in peer-reviewed journals. And the Padres understand it, and it benefits the Padres because we’re in the business of what’s called evidence-based practice.”

This year, Aguinaldo said, about 12 of his former PLNU students are working for major-league teams. The Padres employ several of them, including sports scientist Jesús Ramos.

“You’ve got grad students who are motivated, who are learning about the science, who are doing their theses on some aspect of baseball biomechanics,” added Aguinaldo, who still consults for multiple big-league organizations and has sent students to Driveline Baseball. “You’ve got people who live and breathe biomechanics and learn. And subsequently, because they know about biomechanics, they’re able to interpret the results and convey them in a layman’s fashion to the players and coaches.”

Aguinaldo has found an eager partner in Niebla, who studied kinesiology and exercise science as an undergraduate student at Azusa Pacific University. The two men first met several years ago, when Niebla was the Cleveland Guardians’ assistant pitching coach and Aguinaldo assessed their pitchers in spring training. Since Niebla joined the Padres after the 2021 season, the organization has made regular use of Aguinaldo’s lab — mobile or otherwise.

Just two days after San Diego’s ouster from the 2022 National League Championship Series, for instance, Niebla had Joe Musgrove, Nick Martinez and others throwing in front of Aguinaldo and his students in a weight room at PLNU. Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller has sought to recruit free agents by bringing them to visit the lab. Before the team signed Japanese reliever Yuki Matsui to a five-year, $28 million contract in December, Niebla used the lab as a selling point.

“He had explained to me about this lab, how it could be helpful to pitchers,” said Matsui, who attended Monday’s ceremony alongside teammate and fellow countryman Yu Darvish, and Padres minor leaguer Daniel Camarena.

“You’re able to analyze your movement and see your pitches through data,” Darvish said. “When you’re not doing too good or when you’re good, what am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? Those kinds of data, you’re able to pick up through these systems.”

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Pitcher Yu Darvish has made use of the lab’s facilities. (Matt Thomas / San Diego Padres / Getty Images)

Niebla said some teams, in attempting to maintain labs at their spring training facilities, have grappled with “a complicated operation.”

“When we come over here (to the PLNU lab),” Niebla added, “there’s 10 graduate students that are helping us gather the information, just watching the cameras, making sure that everything is being assessed.”

In a typical session, Aguinaldo and his students use the lab’s technology to gather data, provide a summary of biomechanical movements and, according to Niebla, “red-flag” potential inefficiencies. That information is passed to the Padres’ in-house sports science team, which then distills the recommendations into more baseball-specific terms.

“A lot of times it ends up being one thing,” Niebla said. “So, it goes from a complex thesis to eventually one thing.”

Almost a year ago, after fracturing his left big toe in a weight room accident, Musgrove briefly left camp in Arizona to have his delivery assessed; the Padres soon received confirmation, based on prior sessions at the lab, that the right-hander did not appear to be overcompensating for the injury. Niebla said recent acquisition Michael King has gotten his own biomechanical assessment at the lab — an important data point as the Padres attempt to increase King’s workload from a career-high 104 2/3 innings last season.

The Padres this offseason lost Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and fellow veterans Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo and Martinez to free agency. Star closer Josh Hader signed with the Houston Astros. Darvish and Musgrove, the leaders of the rotation, are coming off seasons that were prematurely ended by arm injuries. So far in major-league free agency, the team has added only Matsui and fellow relievers Woo-Suk Go and Wandy Peralta. San Diego’s payroll, since last season, has been slashed by close to nine figures. And despite their hires of Niebla and other forward-thinking individuals, the Padres still face some perceptions that they are less analytically minded than other teams.

So, much could be riding on a seven-figure investment in a facility not far from Petco Park. The Padres intend to use the lab for more than just pitching evaluation. Position players, too, can have their movements tracked and recorded; compared to pitching analysis, there is less available research across baseball about hitting biomechanics. Still, the Padres and Aguinaldo have discussed bringing Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and others to the lab.

“Usually, the first few sessions are all about just observation,” Aguinaldo said. “What are we seeing? What are we seeing from a biomechanical perspective? And how does that compare to what we’re seeing on the field when they’re taking actual live ABs?”

The action, as always, will start with the pitchers. Toward that end, Aguinaldo has dedicated much of his life’s work.

“The great thing about biomechanics is we have what’s called biomechanical risk factors,” Aguinaldo said. “And because we can modify something like the amount of torque on the shoulder or elbow, then we can work with the player … to make sure that they’ve got the internal tools that they can go six, seven, eight innings or a complete game without getting any pain. I mean, that’s the hope.”

It is indeed, now with more data than ever.

(Top photo of Daniel Camarena throwing at the lab: Matt Thomas / San Diego Padres / Getty Images)

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